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Monday, March 26, 2012

Getting the Seasons Officially Wrong

Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post has not quite turned the corner with respect to spring, and the seasons in general. You see, “season” is used in two distinct though related ways in English. It can refer to four distinct weather/plant-life conditions or to the four parts of the earth’s orbit around the sun. Given the tilt of the Earth, the two are related but they do not occur together. While Achenbach acknowledges that the vernal equinox typically on March 21st “is a moment of time specified by the motion of the Earth around the sun,” he refers to this as the official start of the meteorological spring. In actuality it is not. In the Northern Hemisphere, meteorologists record data from December, January and February as winter and March, April and May as spring. So in March 2012, meteorologists could already conclude that the preceding winter had been the fourth warmest since the record-keeping began.

Consider the insanity in claiming on December 19th in the Northeast, the Northern Midwest, or on the Northern plains or further west that it is still fall. Yet even television weather people make the mistake of representing the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere—as meteorological and botanical rather than astronomical in nature (to say nothing of the sheer stupidity in ignoring the obvious winter conditions of snow and ice). Meanwhile, still other people render the astronomical event as religious in nature. The ascendancy of the evergreen on the longest night is religious for those people even as it is botanical to others.

For my purposes here, it is sufficient to note that astronomy is distinct from  meteorology and botany. The latter two are relatively coincident as phenomena. To make meteorology and botany wait on an astronomical mark conflates different categories that do not cohere. It is not surprising that such thinking results in some rather obvious mistakes.

I argue that the same sort of cognitive flaw takes place in comparing a state in one empire-scale union (e.g., France) with another entire empire-scale union (e.g., the U.S.). The respective unions’ states are equivalent both in scale and politically in being semi-sovereign. Citizens in California could just as well say, “In California we do X (that really could be just about anything), while in the E.U. you do Y.” This statement seems strange on both sides of the pond, yet no one bats an eyelid at: “In the Netherlands we do X, while in the U.S. you do Y.” The asymmetry is based on European states’ rights (i.e., the antifederalist movement in American terms) and (frankly) American ignorance at America’s expense. So too, there is ignorance in a meteorologist announcing changes in the weather seasons based on astronomical bench-marks in the Earth’s orbit even as meteorologists do not use those bench-marks in recording data.

I suppose it is in reaction to the meteorologists’ inexcusable carelessness in conflating meteorology and astronomy (they are meteorologists, after all) that I note the beginning of a season by the actual shift in weather conditions. That is, I go from the empirical conditions on the ground. March of 2012 was warm even for spring across the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. A day or two into the warmth, I naturally started referring spring having arrived. Sure, winter could have returned and then it would have been winter for those days, so the seasons can refer to particular weather conditions (being meteorological). Yet the seasons can also refer to more long-standing clusters of botanical/meteorological conditions. In that March, as soon as the flowers and buds were visible, that only added to my determination to say to folks, “Well, spring has arrived”—meaning on a more long-standing basis than just a warm spell. No one even put up a fight—even as the weather folks on television were still marveling that spring was still weeks away. They just made themselves out to be stubborn idiots, frankly. When they finally “celebrated” the arrival of the astronomical event of there being no tilt in the Earth’s relationship to the sun as if the event were meteorological, the weather “personalities” resembled people who get to a party hours late and announce that the party has officially begun. People at the party obviously know it has been going on for hours, and naturally look confused and ask the host, “who invited those idiots.”  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do any good to talk to a television set; the talking heads keep right on going, completely sure of themselves.


In March of 2012 in many of the northern republics of the U.S., it would have been crazy not to refer to the conditions on the ground, which included daffodils and even tulips flowering and bushes and even trees budding, as spring. Insisting that weeks in the 70s and even 80s are still winter just points to the fault in using the names of the weather/plant seasons to refer to the astronomical quadrants of the Earth’s orbit. There is no “spring” in outer space. If anything, it is a perpetual winter, though even this analogy fails. Furthermore, spring arrives at different times in North America, depending on how far north one happens to be. It really is a regional affair.

The standardization of record-keeping (e.g., spring as March, April and May) is entirely reasonable, but the category mistake with astronomy goes too far, cognitively/logically as well as empirically. Sticking to such a mistake even while making such obvious blunders (such as that 80 degrees with flowers blooming is still winter, or 25 degrees with snow is still fall) is a strange choice that suggests a certain mentality, given that the weather person could simply stay mum on the issue rather than say something that can easily be anticipated as looking stupid. Why even announce that it is still winter while standing outside in shorts among flowers? Why go to the trouble of announcing a category mistake as if it were valid? I suspect that part of the answer is an over-valuing on things being official. Besides the artificiality in such hypertrophy, the mentality involves the flaw of denial. “It doesn’t matter whether it is pouring outside, if there is no rain in my gauge it is not raining.” In a way, this is a version of lying. Refusing to admit an empirical observation on account of an ideological value one holds (excessively), one is willing to lie.

It is not as if the meteorological and astronomical change together. At the very least, the distinctly astronomical nature of the vernal equinox in March (when the earth has no tilt relative to the sun—which happens also at the equinox in September) should be specified rather than implying that the matter is meteorological in nature. Even though the days are getting longer in March (an astronomical matter), it takes time for the air to warm. Accordingly, the meteorological and botanical are not coincident with the astronomical. Treating an astronomical event as if it were meteorological is thus an error; it is at the very least misleading. To willingly mislead just to be official is the sordid mentality that perpetuates this ongoing category mistake.

Source:
Joel Achenbach, “A Warm, and Official, Embrace of Spring,” The Washington Post, March 20, 2012.